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Diaspora Cartography: On the Rabbinic Background of Contemporary Ritual Eruv Practice

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[Abstract This essay takes as its starting point the observation that the earliest manifestation of the regulations concerning the eruv (hatzerot) can be found in the Mishnah (late second or early third century C.E.). A careful reading of the early rabbinic texts demonstrates that the eruv shapes a community’s relationship to the local space it inhabits in significant ways that are predicated neither on ownership nor on control over that space. Rather, that relationship is based on a set of negotiations with those who share the space, in rabbinic times predominantly neighbors, and later also jurisdictions. Further, as a tool of drawing symbolic Jewish maps, the rabbinic eruv enhances the concept of multidimensionality of space, as one map—a rabbinic map—of signification is superimposed on space without control over it. As such, the eruv is quintessentially the product of a diaspora imagination, not merely in a historical sense of a post-70 C.E. reality, but in the political sense of inhabiting a space that is shared with and even controlled by others., Abstract This essay takes as its starting point the observation that the earliest manifestation of the regulations concerning the eruv (hatzerot) can be found in the Mishnah (late second or early third century C.E.). A careful reading of the early rabbinic texts demonstrates that the eruv shapes a community’s relationship to the local space it inhabits in significant ways that are predicated neither on ownership nor on control over that space. Rather, that relationship is based on a set of negotiations with those who share the space, in rabbinic times predominantly neighbors, and later also jurisdictions. Further, as a tool of drawing symbolic Jewish maps, the rabbinic eruv enhances the concept of multidimensionality of space, as one map—a rabbinic map—of signification is superimposed on space without control over it. As such, the eruv is quintessentially the product of a diaspora imagination, not merely in a historical sense of a post-70 C.E. reality, but in the political sense of inhabiting a space that is shared with and even controlled by others.]

1. FN11 Cited from a copy of a Proclamation from The White House, dated Eruv Shabbat (sic!) 1990, archival collection, Stanford University. The original document hangs on the wall of the synagogue to whom the proclamation is addressed, Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, DC, as per e-mail correspondence with Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel (May 22, 2011). I am grateful to Rabbi Freundel, who is a professional eruv maker and served as the ghostwriter for the document, for supplying me with this information.
2. FN22 It testifies as to how far the United States has progressed that its president can be made to cite Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762–1839), also known as the Chatam Sofer, even if President Bush did not actually write the document. The proclamation does not cite the source of this excerpt. The Chatam Sofer’s responsa regarding Eruvin are collected under the categories established in the traditional Jewish legal codes, in this case Orech Hayyim (99). This particular responsum refers to the city of Pressburg, now Bratislava, Slowakia.
3. FN33 The kind of eruv under discussion here, the eruv hatzerot or the “eruv of courtyards,” is actually only one of three different kinds of eruvin of which early rabbinic law conceives. Even though the contemporary use of the term in American Hebrish is a misnomer of sorts, as will become clear from the discussion below, I will use this term throughout this article for simplicity’s sake.
4. FN44 See, for example, New York (;; Philadelphia (; Boston (; Houston (; Denver (; Northwest London (; Sydney, Australia ( The list continues. No complete listing of communal eruvin and their maps in the US or internationally exists, as far as I know. The closest attempt to such an endeavor might be Peter Vincent and Barney Warf’s in their article on “Eruvim: Talmudic Places in a Postmodern World,” in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 27 (2002), 30–51. Prior to the internet and modes of public communication, communities relied on different means to announce and communicate the extent of the area marked by the eruv, such as flyers posted in the respective neighborhoods. See for instance a Jerusalem broadside from July 1936, in the collection of the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The poster names the familiar landmarks and concrete geographical sites delineating the area: “On Jaffa road, from the Sephardi Old Age Home until the end of Nahalat Shivah . . . and from Rehavia to Kiryat Shmuel, specifically from Azza Road (but the route the car takes is outside the eruv) . . .” The poster is signed by Ben Zion Idler, the official appointed to deal with the delineation of the eruv. Altogether, such eruv maps become prominent particularly when cities are no longer clearly delineated and walled, a facet of this ritual that will be discussed below.
5. FN55 See also Avtar Brah, Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), who similarly uses the language of “diasporic imagination” in her attempt to conceptualize the complexities of transnational identity formations (193).
6. FN66 Much of the literature on diaspora, especially the more recent literature that conceptualizes diaspora as a condition of globalization, considers the geographical dispersion the hallmark of diasporic identity, thus the much criticized, but still seminal and oft-cited essay by William Safran, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return,” Diaspora 1:1 (1991): 83–99. See however Avtar Brah, Cartographies, who takes her point of departure, conceptually as well as autobiographically, from migration as the quintessential condition of diaspora, but then refuses to reduce the experience to geographical location.
7. FN77 See for instance Lawrence H. Schiffman, The Halakhah at Qumran (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975), 113–15 in a brief reference to early rabbinic law, as contrast to the stricter legal standards adopted at Qumran.
8. FN88 For a discussion of the political significance of the contemporary eruv in Jerusalem, see Eyal Weizman, “The Subversion of Jerusalem’s Sacred Vernaculars,” in The Next Jerusalem: Sharing the Divided City, ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2002), 120–146.
9. FN99 In my article “From Separatism to Urbanism: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Rabbinic Eruv,” Dead Sea Discoveries 11:1 (2004): 43–71, I explored the only potential previous reference in the Community Scroll, which I find highly inconclusive.
10. FN1010 See also Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer’s handbook, The Contemporary Eruv: Eruvin in Modern Metropolitan Areas, 2nd rev. ed. (Jerusalem, New York: Feldheim Publishers, 2002), 1–3. Bechhofer distinguishes between eruv procedure and enclosure: “. . . colloquial usage has extended the use of the term ‘eruv’ to include any reference to the enclosure that is a precondition for the eruv procedure,” 1–2. ‘Eruv procedure’ here would refer to the collection of bread, communication, renting from non-Jews, etc. that establish the eruv community that inhabits the Sabbath territory. Elsewhere I have written more extensively about the symbolic nature of the food collection, see “Neighborhood as Ritual Space: The Case of the Rabbinic Eruv,” Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 10 (2008): 238–58. There I have explored the parallelism with the food symbolism employed by Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians, in which all those who partake of the bread are incorporated as members of the body of Christ.
11. FN1111 The act of carrying or rather transferring an object from the inside of the house to the outside is technically not prohibited in biblical law, other than in proto-typical form in Nehemiah 13:15–21 and Jeremiah 17:21–22. Exodus 16:29 prohibits “going out” from one’s place on the seventh day: “Let no man go out of his place on the Sabbath day.” The rabbis connect the verbal root in this verse (y-ts-a) with the prohibition of “carrying out” (hotza’ah), most likely a traditional law, but much elaborated in the rabbinic law of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Consequently, the rabbis understand the prohibition of carrying outside to be biblical. There is significant debate in the medieval talmudic literature about this. I intend to trace the historical and hermeneutic developments in rabbinic legal thinking in more detail in my book project, Re-Placing the Nation: Judaism, Diaspora, and Neighborhood. In the meantime, see also David Kraemer, “The Sabbath as Sanctuary in Space,” in Tiferet Leyisrael: Jubilee Volume in Honor of Israel Francus, ed. Joel Roth, M. Schmelzer, and Yaacov Francus (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 2010), 79–91.
12. FN1212 The prohibition of transferring out (hotza’ah) is listed as one of the famous thirty-nine labors prohibited on the Sabbath in the Mishnah (mShabbat 7:2), but it is discussed in various places, such as in the opening mishnah of Tractate Shabbat (mShabbat 1:1), implied in the consideration of the various manners of transferring an object across spatial boundaries (mShabbat 10:1 ff.), and in the discussions of what items count for the prohibition of carrying (chapters 4 and 5 in Mishnah Shabbat). Hence, this particular prohibition is central to the rabbinic Sabbath law.
13. FN1313 The Babylonian Talmud interestingly lists a number of well-known Amoraim who did not agree to such a collection. To the question of why in the alley in which Abbaye and Rabbah resided there was no eruv or shittuf, the ritual unification for the alley, Abbaye is said to have replied: “What can we do? For the master [Rabbah, Abbaye’s teacher], it is not his way [Rashi: to collect the contributions from the residents], I am busy with my studies and the other tenants do not care” (bEruvin 68a). This is arguably one aspect of the Babylonian Talmud’s general skepticism vis a vis the practical workability of the eruv hatzerot. The Tosefta legislates that the eruv bread should be deposited in the house where it is usually deposited, “for the sake of peace,” unless there is a person of higher social status (a sage or an adam gadol) or someone with a celebratory cause, such as a wedding (tEruvin 5:11).
14. FN1414 As with most of the early rabbinic halakhic texts, the discussions of the eruv and the Sabbath law in general have to be treated as ritual scripts rather than as ritual descriptions, since we have very little or no information as to how and what people or which people even followed rabbinic halakhic strictures.
15. FN1515 And in fact, the rabbis also raise the question of how transgressive Jews, such as “an ‘Israel’ who transgresses the Sabbath” (tEruvin 5:18), are to be integrated into this ritual community.
16. FN1616 mEruvin 6:1, a text that groups non-Jews with “the one who does not agree to the eruv,” again, implying that the eruv works only if there is a sense of agreement.
17. FN1717 Cp. tEruvin 5:18. See also Fonrobert, “From Separatism to Urbanism.”
18. FN1818 “The Political Symbolism of the Eruv,” Jewish Social Studies 11:3 (Spring/Summer 2005): 9–35.
19. FN1919 See bEruvin 23b, both for Rabbeinu Hanan’el’s commentary, and the citation of his version of the story in Tosafot, “Lahman bar Ristak.”
20. FN2020 It is noteworthy that in the Palestinian Talmud, the Yerushalmi, which contains a few more case stories in this matter, the negotiations are imagined as ending up successful. This difference cannot be discussed in this framework.
21. FN2121 City Archives of Baltimore, my emphasis.
22. FN2222 See, my emphasis. The examples can be multiplied any number of times, since this is a necessary part of establishing an eruv community. In most cases in the US that I know of the symbolic payment is one silver dollar. Vincent and Warf, “Eruvim,” cite the example of Antwerp, where “the Antwerp eruv committee ‘purchased’ Antwerp for the period 1978–2018 for the princely sum of 1000 Belgium franks (about £20),” 35.
23. FN2323 This fact is already underlined by the Chatam Sofer in the responsum cited by President George H. Bush as mentioned above. The Chatam Sofer is of course referring to his own context in Pressburg at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
24. FN2424 Which does not mean that a community or its rabbi cannot in fact miscalculate existing animosities, as has been the case in our own local eruv controversy in Palo Alto. Accordingly, it could be argued that Rabbi Feldman of the orthodox community of Palo Alto misjudged the readiness of the city council of Palo Alto to endorse the establishment of an eruv when he first approached the council in 1999, upon which the proposal was met with so much resistance as to shut down the effort. Meanwhile, the eruv was established and completed via a different route in 2007. And even now the community maintains a low profile, and does not advertise its eruv, nor put an eruv map on its website. Another documented example, from a different time and continent, would be the attempt by Rabbi Seligmann Bär Bamberger (1807–1878) in the southern German city of Würzburg, in the middle of the nineteenth century. His correspondence with the local and then regional authorities documents in beautiful detail the effort at communicating the ritual and symbolic powers of the eruv to the authorities, an effort which was in the end met by success. See David Schuster, “Der Eruw von Würzburg: Ein Verdienst von Rabbiner Seligmann Bär Bamberger s.A.,” Udim: Zeitschrift der Rabbinerkonferenz in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 7–8 (1977/78): 175–82.
25. FN2525 Thus for example in the correspondence of Rabbiner Bamberger in favor of an eruv in Würzburg, where he refers to the symbolic boundary device as “Sabbath wires” [Sabbathdrähte]. See Schuster, “Der Eruw von Würz,” 177. However, in most cases strong fishing line is used, not wire.
26. FN2626 The earliest documented modern (or early modern) negotiations with the non-Jewish authorities regarding marking the Sabbath territory that I am aware of are represented in the case of Hamburg Altona. See Peter Freimark‘s study on the eruv in Hamburg, “Eruw/ ‘Judentore.’ Zur Geschichte einer rituellen Institution im Hamburger Raum,” in Judentore, Kuggel, Steuerkonten, ed. Peter Freimark, Ina Susanne Lorenz, Günter Marwedel (Hamburg: Hans Christians Verlag, 1983), 10–70. Freimark notes: “The removal of the city-walls from smaller and medium-sized towns as well as large cities is of particular significance for our context insofar as the historical city borders that had served as eruv boundary markers—without especially provoking any public attention—were taken down, and the contours of the cities became softer. This is reflected in the sources, in the increasing frequency of controversies around the eruv and its extent.” Ibid., 15, my translation and emphasis. So also the case in the Bavarian city of Fürth in the early nineteenth century, a city without walls, where Jews and Christians lived intermingled. Gisela Blume, a local archivist, documents the correspondence between the Jewish community and the local authority, “Die von den Juden über die Straße gezogenen Drähte; oder: Der Eruv in Fürth,” Fürther Heimatblätter 50:1 (2000): 1–18. Many of the arguments against the eruv in that correspondence anticipate the contemporary ones verbatim, e.g., that the wires have a negative aesthetic impact on the urban scenery and give the city an impression of being a “Judenort,” a place of Jews, 6. Rabbi Bamberger of Würzburg remarks (July 25th, 1864) on the changes necessitating the boundary markers that “for the present city [Würzburg] such a device has not been necessary up till now, since the city wall and gates, resp. the River Main rendered those unnecessary. But now that there is a bridge across the Main, the need for such arose in this city as well,” David Schuster, “Der Eruw von Würzburg,” 177.
27. FN2727 See e.g. Vincent and Warf, “Eruvim,” 34, on the eruv in Antwerp, which “is bounded for the most part by the River Scheldt and railway lines as well as the walls of office blocks and so on.” Such examples can easily be multiplied.
28. FN2828 This would presumably amount to roughly ten meters.
29. FN2929 One linguistic issue with this text is that the mishnaic word for alleyway and entrance to the alleyway is potentially the same. Here, the mishnaic editors clearly refer to the entrance rather than the entire length of the alleyway. Further, I have supplied the cross-beam as that which is implied in our mishnaic paragraph, since the subsequent paragraph, discussed further below, explicates the necessity of a cross-beam, and most of the classic medieval commentators assume that this is what is referred to in this discussion. However, this is not the only option of reading the text, as Abraham Goldberg points out in his critical edition and commentary The Mishna Treatise Eruvin (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1986), [2].
30. FN3030 Beginning in the sixth chapter of the tractate. I have discussed this issue in detail in Fonrobert, “The Political Symbolism of the Eruv.”
31. FN3131 I note this difference without being able to provide an explanation. After all, the alleyway is also assumed to be walled, and preferably closed on three sides, i.e., a cul-de-sac. And further, the shared courtyard is also a paradigm for shared residential space, a miniature neighborhood so to speak. There may be practical reasons at play here, such as joint ownership of space, as in the case of the shared courtyard, versus joint use of space, as in the case of the alleyway. The classical medieval commentator to the Babylonian Talmud Rashi makes this point by arguing that the eruv of courtyards is about the establishment of joint residential space (co-joining houses) while the shittuf of the alleyway is “only” a co-operative arrangement (bEruvin 71b). Another aspect may be the difference of scale. On the importance of scale for thinking about social spaces see David Harvey, Spaces of Hope, California Studies in Critical Geography (University of California Press, 2000).
32. FN3232 One of the differences between the shittuf (partnership) of the alleyways and the eruv of courtyards lies in the kind of food permissible for the symbolic unification. In the case of the eruv the preference is given clearly to bread (as in mEruvin 7:10 discussed above), while the shittuf can be established by any variety of food items, such as for instance by wine or oil (see for instance mEruvin 6:5). See also the talmudic discussion on bEruvin 71b, as well as the halakhic summary by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Eruvin 1:8.
33. FN3333 The subsequent paragraphs in the chapter discuss the character of this cross-beam, such as its minimum width, the material from which it is made (even straw or reed (!), mEruvin 1:5). Cross-beam therefore should be understood broadly, it appears. See also the interesting provision made in tBava Metsia 11:18 that “the residents of a shared courtyard can coerce each other to provide a cross-beam or side-post.”
34. FN3434 Again, this is not the function that the talmudic discussions of the Mishnah have in mind, certainly not overtly, as is the case with the mezuzah. For the talmudic discussion of where to affix the mezuzah, see bMenahot 33a–b and especially Rava’s remark that the mezuzah should be affixed on the doorpost within a handbreadth nearest to the outside (reshut ha-rabbim), making it the first thing one encounters upon entering the house. I thank David Kraemer at the Jewish Theological Seminary for this remark, who however points out that visibility in this context does not play a major role, contrary to its protective role, for instance.
35. FN3535 As in the case of late ancient urban architecture. In contemporary cases the shape of the doorway is often built from scratch or mapped onto existing structures such as telephone poles and wires.
36. FN3636 Thus also briefly Vincent and Warf, “Eruvim,” who suggest: “As an imagined space that unites both ideology and material practice, eruvim thus ritually unify their residents, enhancing their solidarity and sense of community through the symbolic demarcation and enclosure of space as a collective home,” 47.
37. FN3737 The discussion opens with suggesting a technical parallelism with the sukkah, which requires an equal height (mSukkah 1:1). It further explores a physical parallelism with the measurements for the gates of the Temple (mMiddot 4:1), which according to mishnaic calculations were also 20 by 10 cubits, as if the Temple gates served as a model for the parameters of the making of the eruv. This intriguing parallelism is first suggested in the Toseftan parallel to our mishnaic paragraph which rules that “if the entry to the alleyway is higher than twenty cubits, [that is] higher than the gates to the Temple, one needs to lower it . . . if the entry to the alleyway is wider than ten cubits, [that is] wider than the gates to the Temple, one needs to narrow it” (tEruvin 1:1, my emphasis). The German architect Manuel Herz suggests that the eruv, therefore, “is a tool to project a vision of ancient Jerusalem and its Temple onto the banality and the mundane of the everyday city.” Manuel Herz, “Institutionalized Experiment: The Politics of ‘Jewish Architecture’ in Germany,” Jewish Social Studies 11:3 (2005): 58. All these parallels are highly evocative and deserve further exploration. But again that would go beyond the framework of this paper. In the end, after much discussion, the talmudic discussions end up rejecting the Temple measurements as the source for the mishnaic eruv measurements, but only after greatly developing this possibility.
38. FN3838 bEruvin 3a. Rav Nahman bar Yitzhaq was a Babylonian rabbinic scholar of the 4th generation, which would locate him somewhere in the 4th century. While his is the opinion of one individual voice in the talmudic discourse, this is the opinion that is valorized by the editorial layers of the talmudic discussions and by the later halakhic discourse.
39. FN3939 The literature of the Haskalah often utilizes in powerful ways the metaphoric potential of the eruv to illustrate the desire of Jews to leave the domain of Yiddishkeit. The eruv demarcates not so much a zone of halakhic observance, but a zone of the home, of confinement. In Karl Emil Franzos’ novel Der Pojaz (published posthumously in 1905), the hero Sender Glatteis hails from a Chasidic village and comits his first transgression, the first step towards liberation by stepping outside of the eruv boundary. Samuel Gronemann’s novel Tohuwabohu (1920) opens with the Sabbath scene of a studious Jewish girl seducing the hero Jossel Schlenker to read Goethe’s Faust with her on a bench in the park just beyond the “Sabbatgrenze,” the boundary of the Sabbath. Most famously, perhaps, Aron Bernstein uses the eruv as a narrative frame for his novella Vögele der Maggid, published first in 1858. Here the disruption of the eruv signals the disruption of the community and the old ways.
40. FN4040 For an analysis of the London controversy, see Rachel Cousineau, “Rabbinic Urbanism in London,” Jewish Social Studies 11:3 (2004): 36–57.
41. FN4141 For a recent argument in that regard see Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
42. FN4242 Syon and Yavor suggest that at Gamla there might be archaeological evidence for something like an eruv, namely, an eruv door frame at the entrance to an alleyway. This would supply important evidence for rabbinic presence in Gamla. See Danny Syon and Zvi Yavor, “Gamla—Old and New,” Qadmoniot 34 (2001): 2–33, and already earlier Shmarya Gutman’s Gamla—A City in Rebellion (Israel: Ministry of Defence, 1994), 144–46. I remain somewhat skeptical, since Gamla was abandoned in 67 C.E., after the destruction by Vespasian and the X. Legion during the early phase of the Roman-Jewish War. The entrance to the alleyway in Gamla would therefore provide pre-rabbinic evidence for a ritual system that seems otherwise to be an entirely rabbinic invention.
43. FN4343 See for instance mEruvin 6:1 which discusses what is to happen in matters regarding the eruv community if a non-Jew lives in the shared courtyard, as discussed above.
44. FN4444 See Jacob Katz’s wonderful study of the phenomenon of the Shabbos goy, The “Shabbes Goy”: A Study in Halakhic Flexibility (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), as well as Alan Dundes’s somewhat derogatory The Shabbat Elevator and Other Sabbath Subterfuges: An Unorthodox Essay on Custom and Jewish Character (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002).
45. FN4545 So also Vincent and Warf, “Eruvim,” 30, where they claim that “eruvim are miniature worlds that personalize urban space by making, for Orthodox Jews, the public arena private.”
46. FN4646 This aspect of the eruv has been emphasized by conceptual architects such as Eyal Weizman, “The Subversion of Jerusalem’s Sacred Vernaculars,” and Manuel Herz, “Institutionalized Experiment.” However, a different kind of visibility is often brought into play in current controversies, which is the visibility of seeing more orthodox Jews walking around in the streets on the Sabbath. The anti-Semitic nature of such complaints notwithstanding, we have to consider that visibility does play a role here.

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